Three finger roll
by Jon Worley
If you don't let things develop, it's like keeping something in a bag and not letting it out to fly. There's so many different types of music that you can put together to come up with a fresh sound. So that's been the whole thing, to try to play something that sounded good. You never know until you try it out.
A lot of folks out there think that bluegrass is an ancient music form, handed down from generation to generation in Appalachia. The rapid-fire interplay between fiddle, guitar and banjo is cultural shorthand for that part of the country. Deliverance, anyone?
But bluegrass isn't old. It was synthesized in modern musical times by Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt and the rest of Bill Monroe's band in the late 40s. It is true that bluegrass had its roots in the Irish reels and jigs, Scottish ballads and other similar styles from the English Isles. It is also true that immigrants from those areas settled heavily in Appalachia. And is also true that Scruggs and Flatt hailed from regions adjacent to opposite sides of Appalachia.
What made bluegrass bluegrass, however, was the perfect fusion of the reels and jigs with western swing, blues and jazz. Monroe himself referred to the sound as "Methodist, Holiness and Baptist." In other words, bluegrass is just another mongrel American sound. And Earl Scruggs was instrumental in perfecting its form.
That quote at the top explains why Scruggs is one of the indispensable men of American music. He didn't think of music as black or white, country or western or any such thing. He thought of music. And if he liked what he heard, he tried to incorporate it into what he did. He may not have invented the three finger roll method of playing banjo, but his playing made that style preeminent. Scruggs's influence was so complete that the old "clawhammer" style has had to be "rediscovered" by folks like Steve Martin.
Here's a short list of the performers who would have had very different careers without Earl Scruggs: Doc and Merle Watson, the Stanley Brothers, the Byrds, Gram Parsons, the Grateful Dead, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Eagles, Ricky Scaggs, the Seldom Scene, the Jayhawks, Bela Fleck, Uncle Tupelo (and by extension, Wilco and Sun Volt), Gillian Welch and Del McCoury. Without Earl Scruggs, there simply would not have been an O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which was the cultural affirmation of the modern-day americana movement.
Scruggs kept redefining bluegrass throughout his career. He didn't mind folding a little pop or rock and roll into his "revue," as he called his family-led band that recorded and toured through the early 80s. Scruggs was a banjo player beyond compare. But it was his willingness to bring his perspective to different styles of music that made him a great artist.
This is an easy distinction for me. If you want an example of a great musician who is not a great artist, look no further than Wynton Marsalis. Here's a guy who has a label for everything, and he works tirelessly to keep music bottled up in separate boxes. His brother Branford, on the other hand, is a brilliant musician who has always brought a wide variety of sounds and ideas to his work. Branford is a great artist. And no matter how accomplished his playing and composing might be, Wynton will never be a great artist. His mind is too narrow.
Earl Scruggs redefined the way the world heard (and played) the banjo. He was instrumental in the distillation of a new American music form. And he never stopped trying to find new things in music. His importance in the history of music (American and otherwise) cannot be overstated. He was a giant who walked so softly most of us lost track of him. We always feel we didn't appreciate the departed enough after they're gone, and I feel that way about Scruggs. Still, we all have his music, a gift for which we should all be grateful.
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